Experts: Interviews

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An Interview with Susan Piver

What are the benefits of meditation?
There are countless benefits, but I'll list three:

  1. It improves physical health. Meditation has been proven time and again to have a beneficial effect on health. First, it teaches you how to breathe properly. I've often heard Dr. Weil say that if he could teach only one thing to improve health, it would be to breathe correctly. In addition, it is a peerless way of relieving mental and physical stress - and as we have heard so many times, stress can have significant and deleterious effects on health. Certain very common illnesses are clearly stress-related. An ulcer, for example, is caused by the presence of a certain bacteria in the stomach plus stress. No stress, no ulcer. Stress is also a noted component of heart disease, arthritis, digestive difficulties, and weakened immunity.
  2. It enhances mental health. Zindel Segal, Ph.D, professor of psychiatry and psychotherapy at the University of Toronto and a researcher into the benefits of Cognitive Behavior Therapy has reported that depressed patients receiving mindfulness training (meditation instruction) are 50 percent less likely to relapse. Why is this? Of the three factors likely to trigger relapse only one is not beyond our control: cognitive reactivity and sadness. The other two - loss and family or personal history of depression - are beyond our influence. In other words, of all the things that can cause relapse, there is only one that we can change: the way our mind reacts to events and thoughts. Mindfulness teaches how to shift our relationship to thoughts - not to change the thoughts themselves. The implications of this are profound. Mindfulness training allows you to gain some mastery of your own mental health.
  3. Here's my favorite benefit of all. It makes you a nicer person. Every single one of us possesses real wisdom, a way of thinking and perceiving that is distinct from the everyday discursive mind. Experience and age can separate us from that wisdom. (After all, no one was born thinking, "I really need to make more money," or "If only I could lose 10 pounds.") Meditation practice allows you to reconnect with the deepest part of yourself. This connection produces relaxation and even joy. You soften. You relax the incessant self-criticism most of us live with on a moment-to-moment basis. Ceasing to judge yourself so harshly naturally leads to less judgment and more acceptance of others, too. Voila. You're a truly compassionate person.

Is it hard to learn?
Meditation is not difficult to learn. Actually, it's all the other things (anxiety, doubt, self-criticism) that are difficult to unlearn! Meditation simply refines the natural qualities of mind that we already possess: relaxation, clarity, and openness.

It can take as little as 15 minutes to receive meditation instruction. It's important to receive instruction from a legitimate teacher. Although it's certainly possible to learn from a book, it's far better to meet face to face with someone who can teach you in person.

How often do I have to practice before seeing benefits?
Although it differs for everyone, many people find benefits after just one session. In the same way that a nap can take the edge off of fatigue, even one meditation session can lessen mental fatigue. Of course, regular practice (like regular sleep) prevents fatigue from getting out of hand in the first place.

The key is to practice everyday, even if only for a few minutes. It's not the length of "cushion time" that seems to have the greatest impact, it's the frequency. If you spend a little time each day reconnecting with your inner wisdom, it will become a familiar and reliable friend. The most important benefits of meditation - patience, mental clarity, and kindheartedness - are not found on the cushion - they really kick in when you rise and re-enter daily life.

There are so many kinds of meditation. How do I figure out which one is right for me?
This may sound like a dodge, but meditation is anything that stabilizes the mind and cultivates its natural qualities. Please keep that in mind as you consider various meditation styles - there's no right or wrong, there?s only what works for you.

I can give a brief overview of a few Buddhist meditation styles. The techniques described don't really change from school to school, but the presentation and emphasis can.

There are two styles of Buddhist meditation most commonly taught in the West.

Shamatha is a Sanskrit word that means "calm abiding." In Shamatha practice, one takes the breath as the object of meditation. We're always meditating on something - usually we're meditating on our fears, doubts, and cravings. In Shamatha, the breath becomes the focus instead. You simply place your attention on your breath (usually at the tip of your nose) and "ride" it in and out. Thoughts will continue to rise and fall but in this practice we take our mind off of them and put it on the breath instead. (Sometimes people think meditating means ceasing thought. This is impossible. What is possible is to change your relationship to thought.) When you notice that attention has strayed away from the breath, simply bring it back. This practice stabilizes the mind.

As the mind stabilizes, it becomes clear. From this clarity, insight arises naturally. Vipassana (Sanskrit for "clear seeing") is often referred to as "insight meditation." One begins to understand self and other more plainly.

Either one can form the basis of a lifelong practice.

It's important to learn these two styles in sequence. Then if one is moved to try other meditative practices (for example, compassion meditation or certain visualizations), Shamatha/Vipasssana create the stability and clarity to do so.

And don't forget that anything that stabilizes and clarifies your mind is meditation. A quiet walk, a "news fast," or simply allowing yourself to stay in bed for a few extra minutes can qualify. But the long-term benefits are most predictably found within a meditation tradition that has been testing the practice for thousands of years.

Where can I go to learn?
There are many places to learn meditation. Adult education centers, hospitals, even health clubs may offer instruction. It's important, though, to find an instructor who is credible and authorized.

How can it positively impact my health?
If you never rested, imagine the toll it would take on your body. If you were always walking, running, talking, or working, your body would not have the opportunity to grow, heal, and rejuvenate. Like physical health, mental health cannot be optimized without rest. Meditation provides this rest and allows the mind to return to balance.

It can help you deal with chronic or acute pain. The mind and body have bi-directional effect on each other. When you relax the mind, the body relaxes too, making it easier to live with pain. Pain is bad enough; but adding to it by tensing up around it (physically or emotionally) makes it worse.

Meditation lowers stress and has positive impact on health conditions with a strong stress-related component such as heart disease, ulcers and other digestive difficulties, some forms of arthritis, and diabetes.
Finally, meditation has been shown to lower cortisol, a hormone that causes stress and has also been shown to have an adverse effect on immunity.

Can meditation help with depression and anxiety?
Yes. Just as reducing stress on the body triggers its innate healing capabilities, lessening mental stress helps the mind heal itself. Neuroscientists are conducting research that demonstrates what this means in terms of brain chemistry.

In recent research, Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, has shown that brain circuitry is different in long time meditators than it is in non-meditators. Here's how: when you are upset - anxious, depressed, angry - certain regions of the brain (the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex) become very active. When you're in a positive mood these sites quiet down and the left prefrontal cortex - a region associated with happiness and positivity - becomes more active. In studying meditating monks, Davidson found they had especially high activity in this area.

One of the reasons this is so remarkable is that for a long time scientists thought that the brain had certain set points that could not be altered. Study of meditators shows otherwise.

Just as physical health is more than the absence of physical illness, mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. True mental health is characterized by happiness, compassion, and generosity. Study of meditators has shown that these qualities can be taught and are not fixed.

Meditation is more than just a hobby. It's a way of life that cultivates optimal mental health. In this way, it can engender lasting change and provide each of us with a very real way of exerting control and influence over our own mental states.

Is there anyone who should not meditate?
Meditation is not for everyone. It can bring difficult emotions to the surface or produce alterations in the way we see self and others. A certain degree of basic emotional balance is a prerequisite to manage these fluctuations. Therefore meditation is contraindicated for those in the midst of a mental health crisis, or with ongoing psychosis or drug addiction.

If you're currently in therapy or otherwise being treated for a mental health condition, please check with your healthcare practitioner before beginning a meditation practice.

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